Supreme Court voids sack of former Chief Registrar of Appeal Court

Supreme Court

A five-member panel of the Supreme Court has voided the nine-year old sack of former Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal, Bode Thomas over sundry allegations including insubordination.

In a unanimous decision, the apex court held that the 2009 decision by the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC) to retire compulsorily the Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal, breached the principles of fair hearing.

Thomas was compulsorily retired on March 5, 2009 after the FJSC accepted the report of its investigative committee, which examined allegations of “serious misconduct” raised against him in a complaint by the then President of the Court of Appeal Justice Umaru Abdullahi.

But the five-man panel of the Supreme Court, in a unanimous judgment on February 16 this year, faulted the process leading to the FJSC’s decision to compulsorily retire Thomas.

The court said the FJSC breached the principles of fair hearing in its handling of the case.

Justice Abdullahi had, by a letter dated November 24, 2008, laid a complaint against Thomas before the FJSC, which he accused the then chief registrar of insubordination and sundry misconducts.

By a letter dated March 5, 2009, FJSC’s Secretary, Hajia B. A. Bashir, informed Thomas that the commission accepted the report of the committee it constituted to investigate the allegations against him and recommended his compulsory retirement in line with Regulation 43(2)(a) of the FJSC Regulations.

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Thomas challenged the FSJC’s decision at the Federal High Court via a suit, which he filed on May 27, 2009. In its judgment on May 12, 2011, the Federal High Court, among others, voided Thomas’ sack and ordered his reinstatement, a decision the FJSC challenged at the Court of Appeal.

In its judgment on January 16, 2013, the Court of Appeal upheld the FJSC’s appeal and set aside the judgment of the Federal High Court, forcing Thomas to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Justice Kumai Akaahs, in the lead judgment, faulted the judgment of the Court of Appeal, which he noted, was based on irrelevant evidence on which pleadings were not led at the trial court.

Justice Akaahs said: “The appeal (at the Court of Appeal) was decided on the issue of admission made by the plaintiff (Thomas) on which there was no pleading. The evidence went to no issue. The evidence has no relevance and should be expunged from the records.”

He said the important question relevant to the resolution of the appeal was the determination of whether the process leading to Thomas’ retirement breached the principles of fair hearing as argued by the appellant.

Justice Akaahs, after a thorough analysis of parties’ arguments, held that it could not be said that the principles of fair hearing was not breached, where Justice Abdullahi, who was the complainant, also participated in the disciplinary proceedings leading to the FJSC’s decision to retire Thomas.

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He upheld Thomas’ argument that the participation of the President of the Court of Appeal in the FJSC’s disciplinary proceedings, where he (Justice Abdullahi) was also the accuser, breached the principles of fair hearing.

Justice Akaahs said the Court of Appeal was in grave error when it held that no prejudice or miscarriage of justice was proved by the appellant such as would vitiate the proceedings that led to appellant’s compulsory retirement.

He said: “I have already disposed of issue one and any arguments relating to admissions made by the appellant on giving approval to staff to undertake foreign trips and the recruitment of junior staff without the approval of the President, Court of Appeal cannot be used to justify the claim that the appellant was granted fair hearing.

“In view of all that transpired and especially based on the fact that the President, Court of Appeal had made up his mind, when he wrote to the Secretary of the FJSC on 24th November 2008, that he could no longer work with the appellant as Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal and requested that an appropriate disciplinary action be taken against him.

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“It is obvious that the appellant did not stand a chance of getting any verdict from the commission (FJSC) other than the one which was recommended by the investigating committee. In other words, the commission was to merely rubber stamp what the committee had recommended.

“Most of the members of the committee were among those who sat in the commission to approve the recommendations.

“In conclusion, the appeal succeeds in the main. The proceedings of the committee, together with the decision of the FJSC are hereby declared a nullity for failure to adhere strictly to the rules of natural justice.

“The decision taken at the FJSC to compulsorily retire the appellant as Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal since March 5, 2009 is hereby set aside. The appellant is reinstated to his post as Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal with effect from the date of his compulsory retirement,” Justice Akaahs said.

Justice Paul Galinje, in his contribution, expressed displeasure about the process leading to Thomas’s compulsory retirement. He noted that it was wrong for Justice Abdullahi (who was the accuser) and members of the investigative committee to participated in the FJSC’s meeting, where the investigation report was adopted.

Justices Musa Dattijo Muhammad, Amina Adamu Augie and Sidi Dauda Bage, who were also on the panel, agreed with the lead judgment.